What does the Sundiata Epic tell us about Medieval Mali?

Known as the Lion King, Sundiata was one of medieval Mali’s most important Mansas (kings). What can we learn about his rule of Mali, and how has his story been told through the ages?

You can download the worksheet for today’s lesson here. If you are unable to download the worksheet, please complete the tasks in the yellow boxes below.

Mansa = The king of kings.
Griot = a Malian storyteller. They usually tell Mali’s history through song.
Legend = A traditional story that is told and passed down through the ages.
Oral History = History that is spoken; it is not written down.

Sundiata was one of Mali’s most important rulers in the medieval period. Here are a few ways in which people in Mali describe him today:

“The Lion of Sogolon” (Sogolon was Sundiata’s mother).
“The Mansa“.
“The King with two names” (one being a king, the other being a lion).

From these descriptions, what do you think Sundiata was like as a king?
HINT: He is likened to a lion. What ideas do you have when you think about lions?

An artist’s impression of Sundiata in the popular computer game, Civilization VI

TASK ONE: The Sundiata Epic

The Sundiata Epic is a story of the legend of Sundiata. This story has been passed down through the generations of Malians by older Malians telling the story to younger Malians to teach them of their country’s history.

Read the story below. For each number, sketch a quick image to show what is happening in the story.

The Sundiata Epic

  1. Konate was king of the Mandika people in Mali. He had heard about a prophecy (a magical story) that if he married an ugly woman, she would give birth to a mighty warrior who would become a legendary Mansa.
  2. He married Sogolon, a hunchbacked woman who was said to have been a type of witch. In 1210 A.D., she gave birth to a son names Sundiata.
  3. Sundiata was a weak and sick child, and was unable to walk. His older half-siblings mocked him.
  4. When Konate died, Sundiata’s eldest half-brother banished him and his mother from the Mandika Kingdom.
  5. As Sundiata grew older, he became stronger. He was eventually able to walk, and his mother taught him magical powers. He became as strong as a lion.
  6. An evil king named Kante took control of the Mandika Kingdom. Using his powers, Sundiata wanted to raid an attack on Kante and save his Kingdom. He prayed to Allah before the invasion.
  7. An epic battle began. Sundiata defeated Kante with his magical bow and arrow. Sundiata was given the title Mansa, as he became the leader of the whole of Mali. He was the first king of the Malian Empire.
  8. Under Sundiata, Mali became peaceful and rich. He was known to be a leader of wisdom, justice and religion. He died in 1260 A.D.

TASK TWO: How do Malians remember Sundiata?

This legend of the Sundiata Epic has been passed down by Griots (Malian storytellers). Watch the video below to see how Malian Griots tell their History.

Briefly answer these questions:
– Why might the Griots present Sundiata as a hero?
– Is there anything in their story that we might not consider ‘history’? HINT: Think about the references to magic in the story.

TASK THREE: Can we rely on oral history?

a) Look back at the Sundiata Epic.
– Can you think of one thing that is unreliable in this story? Why is it unreliable?
– Can you think of two things that are reliable in this story? Why are they reliable?

b) Provide an answer to this question:
How useful is oral history in helping us understand the history of Mali?
You can use the sentence starters below to help you!

Oral history can useful for the Historian to study because…
However, oral history presents challenges to the Historian because…
In conclusion, I think oral history is very/somewhat/not useful to the Historian because…

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